Children's books can help young Canadians learn more about residential schools, says writer Monique Gray Smith
'Books and stories have the potential to transform us'
This interview originally aired on June 26, 2021.
Monique Gray Smith is an author and storyteller of Cree, Lakota and Scottish heritage who often writes and speaks about the resilience of Indigenous communities.
Smith is known for her children's books which take a gentle approach to empathy, resilience and informing young Canadians of the legacy of the residential school system in Canada. Her books include the middle-grade book Speaking Our Truth; the picture book When We Are Kind, illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt; and the picture book You Hold Me Up, illustrated by Danielle Daniel.
As a public speaker and consultant, Smith has helped parents, teachers and caregivers with suggestions about what to read and how to talk about these tragedies with children.
On Sept. 30, Canada will mark its second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a time to commemorate children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, those who survived and made it home, their families and communities still affected by the lasting trauma.
In 2021, Smith spoke with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter after the devastating confirmation of unmarked graves at several former residential schools in Canada and talked about how books by Indigenous creators encourage children to show love and support for each other.
Monique, first of all, how are you doing?
That's a question and a half, isn't it? But I'm grateful my mom is here visiting with me right now. I just came in, actually, from visiting with my mom and my sister. That and my children are helping the day unfold.
As I heard the news, it struck me about the privilege I have as a parent to actually be able to raise my children, to be able to see them go to school and know they will be coming back. It is an immense privilege because for us, as the adults in the lives of these littlest and youngest citizens, it's our sacred responsibility. That responsibility was removed for seven generations.
How do we honour the sacred responsibility of those little ones who are no longer with us?
The confirmation that came out — and the confirmations that will continue to come out — are our reminders of our sacred responsibilities. How do we honour the sacred responsibility of those little ones who are no longer with us?
How do you talk to children about Canada's residential schools, when adults barely have words?
This generation of young citizens we're raising is the first generation to truly know the truth. That has come through books, stories and movies, and it's come through educators and families beginning to understand the truth.
This generation of young citizens we're raising is the first generation to truly know the truth.
We have the potential, in one generation, to alter this place we call Canada. In there, for me, is the hope — we have to have hope. There are days like today, when hope is in the cuticle of my pinky toe, but we have to have hope.
You have done a wonderful YouTube video about books for all ages to read about Canada's residential schools legacy. It's a list that mentions Indigenous creators such as David A. Robertson, Julie Flett, Tasha Spillet-Sumner, Katherena Vermette and more. What are you hoping these books will go out and do?
Books and stories have the potential to transform us. I remember, in the early '90s, I was in this course with Shirley Sterling. She was talking about writing her book, My Name Is Seepeetza, and how afraid she was at the time to put it in the world. That's because it was one of the very first books about the residential school experience and it was written for young citizens.
I think about how she held the branches for the rest of us to work through. That's what books do — they hold back the branches for us to go into the story so that we can understand in a way that we might not be able to otherwise.
Books and stories have the potential to transform us.
Sometimes if I'm listening to a person's story, and I feel myself flooded with emotion, I might turn it off because I don't want anybody else to see that, or I might feel ashamed. But when we read a children's book or we read a novel and we are flushed with emotion, we have that space because we're reading, in often private spaces, to be with the story and be with our emotions.
And in those emotions, there's the possibility again for change.
Whose stories did you include in your book Speaking Our Truth?
I included stories from young people from all over Canada. The book was published in 2017, so not very long ago. What surprised me then was how many children had yet not learned much in school.
Part of the reason I wrote Speaking Our Truth was so that the educators in classrooms could have these conversations, and could have a book that could guide them with their conversations. The accompanying teacher's handbook, by the incredible Tasha Henry, was written to support them because they don't know how to have these conversations and they need support.
Part of the reason I wrote Speaking Our Truth was so that the educators in classrooms could have these conversations, and could have a book that could guide them with their conversations.
I think about it like the medicine wheel — the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. Allies often want to go right away to the mental and physical aspects. But where the healing and the possibility for transformative change is in the emotions and in the spirituality.
I think that's why books are so important for children and for the adults in their lives, because they allow for that space of emotions and spiritual connection to unfold in a way that might not otherwise unfold.
- Students in Montreal discuss what reconciliation looks like with Speaking Our Truth author Monique Gray Smith
Tell us about your picture book, You Hold Me Up.
You Hold Me Up is illustrated by the incredible Danielle Daniel and published by Victoria-based Orca Books. This book is dedicated to Aboriginal Head Start staff, children and families. Aboriginal Head Start is a cultural preschool and it is a healing program for generations — allowing children to have a different start than they did either in residential schools or the day schools.
One of the things that Danielle has done so beautifully in this book is, on the mouths of all of the characters, she has drawn hearts, reminding us to speak with kindness. That's why, I always talk about the illustrators because if we don't talk about the illustrators, we miss out on potential for our children.
One of the things that Daniel has done so beautifully in this book is, on the mouths of all of the characters, she has drawn hearts, reminding us to speak with kindness.
The illustrators bring the books to life. They weave in pieces and teachings and learnings that the words can't do. I've been privileged to collaborate with artists such as Danielle, Julie Flett and Nicole Neidhardt so far.
I love the hearts on the mouths of these characters. That's such a powerful image for any age and any person. It also relates to one of your mantras: Love is medicine.
We don't always have to say love, but when we treat somebody with respect, with kindness, when we share with them, when we uphold their dignity — those are all acts of love.
What's happening in this country right now is that people are realizing that there were generations where there were no acts of love — not only in the places that were called schools, but also the children and the families didn't have the opportunities, the privilege, as I said earlier, to experience that love.
What's happening in this country right now is that people are realizing that there were generations where there were no acts of love.
That's where the change happens, is when we can be empathic and realize, "Wow, that didn't happen. How now do we make sure it happens?"
That's where we have the potential for change.
Monique Gray Smith's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.